These are some extremely exciting times for women who care about the Torah. First it was announced that “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary” — the first comprehensive commentary on the Torah written completely by women — will be published this December, a significant accomplishment fifteen years in the making. For most of us, that would have been enough — Dayenu! — but not for Jen Taylor Friedman, a female scribe who has just — drumroll, please — completed the first known Torah scroll written by a woman! Commissioned by the United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis — “the first congregation west of the Mississippi” — the Torah has been in the works since June 2006, as part of the synagogue’s Torah Alive! project.
In a press release about the event, Taylor, who is only 27 — which I imagine to be a rather young age for any scribe of a Torah scroll — is quick to focus on the mitzvah-oriented nature of her accomplishment, rather than its feminist implications:
“The Torah is at the root of what shapes my days. The laws I live by are derived from the words in this scroll. Having written every one of them, I have a closer relationship with what’s at the heart of my Judaism,” says Taylor Friedman.
“For any scribe, finishing your first Torah is something like getting your Ph.D. It’s something you’ve worked a long time for, and worked very hard on. From a personal Jewish perspective, it is a mitzvah for every Jew to write a Torah scroll of his or her own.”
“I wrote a Torah because I wanted to write a Torah, not because I wanted to make a big feminist statement,” Taylor Friedman says. “The first-woman aspect is an enjoyable component instead of the central achievement.”
The downplay of the feminist statement is underscored by the fact that the Torah was commissioned by an already-egalitarian Reform congregation, and would almost certainly not be considered “kosher” for use by Orthodox standards. Thus it really is a great and significant accomplishment by a woman, but not necessarily a huge step for the Jewish feminist cause. Friedman has proven that a woman can physically write a Torah — which should never have been doubted in the first place, but surely was by some of the more backward-thinking members of the wider Jewish community — but she has not succeeded in getting the writing of a Torah by a woman sanctioned by those who have, and still do, disapprove of it. However, all in good time.
Friedman does at least have the approval of Orthodox feminists. She (and her Torah?) will participate in a discussion about women and the Torah this Sunday at the Drisha Institute, “the world’s first center for women’s advanced study of classical Jewish texts,” in Manhattan. The Torah scroll will officially be installed in the United Hebrew Congregation on October 3rd, Simchat Torah, and will be replacing a worn, 200-year-old scroll.
If you need some inspiration this High Holiday season, think about that.
–Rebecca Honig Friedman
From Jen Taylor Friedman herself, a correction about the success of acceptance of female-scripted Torah scrolls (namely, for the moment, hers) in the Modern Orthodox community:
“I have, actually. I wrote an extensive halakhic article justifying women writing Torah, and it’s to be published in the next issue of the Edah journal as-was, now Meorot. That constitutes getting the idea accepted (or sanctioned, if you like) as a legitimate halakhic position by the Modern Orthodox mouthpiece, and it’s pretty wow, in my opinion. As you imply, a good deal more wow than just writing a Torah. Much less iconic, but much more significant.”